Gregory Ronczewski is the Director of Product Design at TeamFit platform – view his profile on TeamFit


“According to a legend, ancestors of today’s Oromo people in a region of Kaffa in Ethiopia were believed to have been the first to recognize the energizing effect of the coffee plant. No direct evidence though has been found indicating where in Africa coffee grew or who might have used it first as a stimulant or even known about it before 17th century. The story of Kaldi, the 9th-century Ethiopian goatherd (Wikipedia) who discovered coffee when he noticed how excited his goats became after eating the beans from a coffee plant, did not appear in writing until 1671 and is probably apocryphal.” It’s a cool story though. Just for a second, can you imagine what over-caffeinated goat could do? Right, moving on…

Total production of green coffee beans in 2016 was 9.2 million tonnes. Coffee is cultivated in more than 70 countries. Here, on the West Coast, one can find a coffee shop on almost every street.

There are so many ways to make a cup of coffee. From a fancy espresso maker to a French press or Turkish coffee pot, which is called cezve or ibrik. A little linguistic side trip following the Arabic name – in Polish, the pot to brew coffee is often called imbryk (ibrik) do kawy. I remember my uncle—the writer who spent days staring at his pale blue typewriter—used to stick his head into the kitchen asking “do we have coffee?” Notice that he did not ask if he could have a cup of coffee – he wanted to know if there was any coffee. At the time, coffee was a hard-to-get luxury product. If the answer were yes, he would put on the stove his beloved Turkish pot, and soon, the house will be filled with a wonderful aroma.

I was always fascinated with espresso makers. Italian machines with exotic names like Gaggia, La Pavoni, Rancilio, or Cimbali. And of course, there is always the barista. Observing how the coffee is placed in the portafilter, then pushed down with a tamper gives me a thrill. Moments later, two thin steams of dark liquid starts flowing down to a small cup made of thick porcelain. It requires such a finesse. It is an art in itself.

“Without my morning coffee, I’m just like a dried up piece of roast goat.” ~ Johann Sebastian Bach

Now, you may wonder where I am going with this story. Here is the thing. Coffee brewing is quite predictable. The perfect grind of the beans can be set, so is the ideal temperature of the water (200 °F / 93 °C) heated by the espresso machine. A brew ratio from 1:1 (18 grams in / 18 grams out) to 1:2 (18 grams in / 36 grams out) will result in a “ristretto” or “normale” espresso. Adjusting ratio to 1:4 will create “lungo” espresso. Darker roasts will taste better with a smaller ratio – lighter roasts will taste better with a more significant proportion. Many sources list 25 seconds of brewing time as the ideal to obtain perfect results. The pump should deliver 9 BAR pressure. So, in theory, you could have a perfect cup every time if you follow the recipe.

And that’s precisely what happened. Sorry my dear barista, you have been replaced. Automatic machines, like Nespresso, have become very popular. Not only in our homes or offices, but also in high-end restaurants. If you are not sure what I am talking about, watch Comin’ Home featuring George Clooney. In France alone, those automatic espresso makers are used in over 100 Michelin-starred restaurants. Why? Well, here is an interesting question: what exactly are we looking for? The final product, that is, the best-ever cup of coffee? Or the process, the ritual of making the not-always-perfect cup. According to Julian Baggini (Joy of the Task, Atom Magazine, 2013), in a blind tasting, the automatic expresso always wins over traditionally brewed coffee. Yet, the customers are not happy. If you are ready to dine in a place that only few can afford, do you want to finish your culinary experience with a perfect matching brew? Surprisingly, many patrons object to the presence of automatic coffee makers. They prefer the process, even if the outcome is not predictable.

The craft of coffee making, perhaps not overly complicated, still requires the aspiring barista to master several skills. A competency model would be relatively easy to construct, and all new employees will be subjected to the scrutiny of the established process. But now, if all you need to do is to place a cup and push a button, is this still a craft, or something less that can be administered by any member of the serving team?

What about other businesses, where a complex model can be successfully reconstructed deploying AI supported machine for the benefit of the customer. A pharmacy. Yes, that’s right. According to Richard and Daniel Susskind (The Future of The Professions), The University of California runs a pharmacy staffed by a single robot. It has filled over 2 million prescriptions without a single mistake, comparing (a conservative estimate) US human-staffed pharmacies make a wrong prescription 1 percent of the time. This comes to 37 million errors a year! Would you prefer to be served by a robot or still yearn for the human interaction at the counter?

As we discuss Competency Models and the rules governing their creation, we should pay attention to the possibility of AI-supported roles. When the time comes, competency models need to be configured to take into account the human and non-human dimensions of any given role. As we design competency models, we should ask a question – are we interested in the process or the outcome? Competency Models often divide a role into small steps that are easy to measure (the process) missing the bigger prize that awaits at the end. Perhaps there is a lesson that we can learn from the automatization of espresso making. We like it to be perfect, but not at the expense of losing the barista.